In the eleventh century, Bruno of Cologne founded the Carthusians, an order of hermits whose motto down through the centuries has been "never reformed because never deformed." Theirs is an austere life of prayer and meditation. Nancy Klein Maguire, a Scholar-in-Residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library since 1983, has written a fascinating book about the quest of five novices who desire admission to the order in 1960. They must spend five years before making the "solemn profession" that entitles them to become a Carthusian monk.

The five young men arrive at the monastery at Parkminster, West Sussex, England. (The movie Into Great Silence was filmed at another Carthusian monastery in the Swiss Alps.) They enter a world that contains its own rituals and rhythms:

"Carthusians mark time not by decades, years, hours, or days, but by the liturgical year, the seasons of the Church. Their time is out of time, directed not by business opportunities, not by social engagements, but by the tolling of the immense church bell. Its deep and continuing resonance gives structure to monastic days and nights. Time moves slowly and predictably; in the measured instants of the Latin 'now': nunc, nunc, nunc. For the monk, there is no future and no past, merely a series of 'nows.' Moment by moment, breath by breath; like a heartbeat. Time slows down: by secular standards, the monks move in slow motion. The life-support system of the Charterhouse allows the monks to function at a slower pace, diving deeper and still deeper into silence."

Maguire describes the layers of concentric circles that wrap these aspiring monks to solitude and closeness to God. The land surrounding the Charterhouse is the first circle; high walls around the monastic complex. The monk's cell provides another layer of privacy, and then there is the inner room of his cell that no one can enter without his permission. The Carthusians are completely cut off from the world: no magazines, television, newspapers, secular books, telephones, radios, or even musical instruments. Maguire does a good job conveying the disciplined lives of these monks and the challenges they square off against in their lives of silence and solitude.